The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

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PolyglotMaya
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The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby PolyglotMaya » Sun Jan 31, 2016 1:34 pm

Recently, a friend of mine (who is learning Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish) posted something on Facebook about the Scandinavian languages. A Danish person commented on his post saying that Danish children start speaking later than children of any other language, because of how throaty Danish is. I don't know if there's been a study that has proved this claim (I highly doubt it, since Arabic is even throatier, among other problems), but the implication was clear: Danish is a hard language, possibly one of the hardest languages in the world.

Danish. With its simple alphabet (hello, Japanese and Chinese!) and its simple grammar. And yes, it is a bit throaty, but as I mentioned, Arabic is even throatier. And what about other languages with "difficult" pronunciation, like tonal languages, or click languages, or Korean? Do children of all of these languages start speaking later than average, too?

The whole thing would be laughable, but it is part of a larger trend that I've noticed: namely, almost everyone seems to think that their native language is the hardest on the planet. I've heard that claim made from native speakers of English, French, Russian, Chinese, Farsi/Persian, Danish (just now), and probably other languages that I'm forgetting.

With English in particular, you would think that the hundreds of millions of people who speak English as a foreign language (sometimes at native-level fluency) would shatter the image of it being some kind of impenetrable language available only to the Hurculean, but nope. The myth persists.

Why do you think this myth persists among so many different speakers of different languages? Is it some kind of ego thing ("my native language d**k is longer than yours!")?
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby Rotasu » Sun Jan 31, 2016 2:05 pm

PolyglotMaya wrote:Why do you think this myth persists among so many different speakers of different languages? Is it some kind of ego thing ("my native language d**k is longer than yours!")?


Most likely this is being said by people that haven't learned multiple languages so they aren't aware of the many factors in saying that "so so is the hardest language to learn". I'm guilty of thinking English is difficult for Asian language speakers based on how different the grammar is. But I wouldn't say that for Spanish and French.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby andrepleite » Sun Jan 31, 2016 2:39 pm

I guess people like the idea that they speak a very difficult language and are proud about it. Maybe it makes them feel more sophisticated.
And I agree with Rotasu, that most people who think their native language is the "hardest" probably don't have very much experience with languages and language learning.

@PolyglotMaya: What's so hard about Korean? The pronounciation of Korean sounds pretty "european" to me, compared with other Asian languages.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby PolyglotMaya » Sun Jan 31, 2016 2:53 pm

andrepleite wrote:@PolyglotMaya: What's so hard about Korean? The pronounciation of Korean sounds pretty "european" to me, compared with other Asian languages.


I forget what it's called (there's a formal name for it), but apparently there are different versions of each sound in Korean that are difficult for non-native speakers to even hear properly, let alone copy. (Maybe somebody learning Korean or knowledgeable about it can tell us what this phenomenon is called?)
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby PolyglotMaya » Sun Jan 31, 2016 3:01 pm

andrepleite wrote:And I agree with Rotasu, that most people who think their native language is the "hardest" probably don't have very much experience with languages and language learning.


The thing is, native Russian speakers who think Russian is the hardest! langauge! ever! tend to be ones that went through the Russian school system and formally studied Russian grammar.

And I can see why: when you break down any language and obsess over every grammatical detail, you can make it seem hard. This is especially true of Russian and other "fusional" languages (ones with a lot of conjugations, declensions etc), because these languages tend to have a very elaborate grammatical structure.

Whether that translates into overall difficulty is another matter. Technically, children of every nationality/ethnicity manage to learn their native language(s) just fine, so from that perspective, all languages are the same.

As for adults, I have found (from experience) that a language can be very hard to learn when:

1) you lack motivation, and

2) there aren't a lot of resources for that language, including native media and nearby speakers who you can practice speaking with.

Assuming resources are otherwise available, the motivation factor is by far the biggest factor in how difficult it is to learn a language. It's the reason why I, as a native English speaker, have found Japanese to be easier than Spanish: because my motivation to learn Japanese is sky-high, while my motivation to learn Spanish is almost non-existant.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby vonPeterhof » Sun Jan 31, 2016 3:21 pm

PolyglotMaya wrote:
andrepleite wrote:@PolyglotMaya: What's so hard about Korean? The pronounciation of Korean sounds pretty "european" to me, compared with other Asian languages.


I forget what it's called (there's a formal name for it), but apparently there are different versions of each sound in Korean that are difficult for non-native speakers to even hear properly, let alone copy. (Maybe somebody learning Korean or knowledgeable about it can tell us what this phenomenon is called?)

I assume you're talking about the so-called tense consonants. There are some disagreements among linguists as to how they're actually pronounced. I've read elsewhere that the pitch contour theory discussed in the article may explain an ongoing sound shift in South Korean, and to me it seems like the more plausible explanation of the phonemic difference (at least in the speech of South Koreans younger than 30 that I've listened to). Additionally, the allophones and sound assimilations described further in the article make Korean pronunciation additionally difficult. Plus, its grammar is very similar to Japanese (and thus rather alien to speakers of Indo-European languages) except it's more variegated and less consistent.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby Cavesa » Sun Jan 31, 2016 3:23 pm

Many czechs claim Czech to be the hardest language in the world (perhaps after Chinese, ok) but cannot tell why it should be so much harder than even other Slavic languages or Hungarian, or some of the African languages. It is a kind of excuse for their laziness to learn other languages and an ego boost "I am so clever I speak my native language, despite it being sooo hard".

It is as well one of the popular newspaper topics during boring times.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby Expugnator » Sun Jan 31, 2016 3:37 pm

Speakers of diglossic languages do tend to have the idea that their language is the hardest one. They go to school and are told that they speak their own native language "wrong", so no wonder.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby Stefan » Sun Jan 31, 2016 4:18 pm

Danish is a pretty bad example for the topic considering it's well known to be "awful".

Everyone jokes about people from Denmark not being able to understand each other and there are studies showing that children learn their language slower than, for example, children in Sweden. A 15 months old child from Sweden knows on average 130 words but only 80 words in Denmark (Swedish source). The researchers thought it was due to Danish having many vowel sounds and few consonant sounds. And it's getting worse.



For people interested, studies by Dorthe Bleses might be worth reading.

Danish-learning children, for instance, lag behind a number of other languages in their receptive vocabulary development, knowing about 100 fewer words at age 1;3 than children acquiring other languages.

Our results point indeed to a differential effect of contoids and vocoids on language processing in Danish. A higher rate of vowel-like sounds in a sentence results in lower accuracy and delayed response in word recognition. These outcomes constitute early empirical evidence supporting the possibility that a complicated phonetic structure might be the reason for the observed delay in Danish-learning children’s vocabulary development.

When too many vowels impede language processing: The case of Danish

Here's a photo from Bleses et al., 2008

Image
Last edited by Stefan on Sun Jan 31, 2016 4:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The "my language is the hardest" syndrome

Postby William Camden » Sun Jan 31, 2016 4:46 pm

Turkish speakers I encounter seem to split two ways - some of them believe their language is easy to learn (and Turkish does actually have some simple features, though I have not found it particularly easy to learn), others think it difficult and are surprised that foreigners learn it, sometimes well.
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